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A Voice Still Heard

"Voice of Ashkenaz--The Music and Culture of German and Central European Jewry: Remembrance and Renewal"
By Neil Levin

A musical culture full of regional melodies and sophisticated sacred music once flourished in German-speaking Jewish communities. Franz Liszt wrote of coming to the synagogue and listening to cantorial music. People from the royal courts came. Even Lewis Carroll came. Yet few today will recognize or even hear the names of the once-prominent Oberkantoren (chief or principal cantors). And even as eastern European Jewish music is enjoying a renaissance, many of the regional tunes and grand choral traditions are rapidly being forgotten.

The face of Jewish music changed forever during the nineteenth century when Salomon Sulzer, Vienna's first Oberkantor, fused traditional synagogue melodies with the techniques of Western music. This new approach, artistic and well-schooled, quickly became central to prayer in virtually all German synagogues and a symbol of modern Jewry through the work of Louis Lewandowski.

The first cantor ever to receive formal conservatory training and the first Jew ever admitted to the Berlin Academy of Arts, Lewandowski was music director of Berlin's Neue Synagoge. He brought Sulzer's model to Berlin and began composing his own music for the entire liturgy. He became extremely popular not only in Berlin, where the repertoire was almost exclusively Lewandowski, but even in the deepest recesses of Poland and Ukraine, revealing the significant influence of the German synagogue far beyond Germany's borders. In fact, this period witnessed the rise of an elaborate cantorial and choral literature throughout Germany and Austria that became a source of civic pride even for non-Jewish Germans.

Outside the synagogue, German Jewry developed a broad tapestry of regional melodies. Some families handed down tunes through the generations, especially in Frankfurt where they were considered communal treasures. German kohanim had melodies that no one else sang. Distinct tunes existed for Shabbat zemirot, for portions of the seder and even for secular Zionist songs. Most of these, some known only in a single community, are now virtually extinct.

German Jews contributed greatly to the musical culture of their host society. By the start of the twentieth century, the orchestras, chamber groups and opera houses counted many Jews among their performers. But as Hitler assumed power, Jews were excluded from all German musical organizations and forbidden to perform in the great concert halls of Germany. Even the most famous artists were restricted to performing with Jewish groups in synagogues and Jewish community centers. Nonetheless, both the grand synagogues in German cities and the modest ones in smaller towns resonated with stirring musical expressions of prayer until the infamous night in 1938 when most were reduced to smoldering rubble.

Much of this musical legacy, one of the most significant achievements in Jewish cultural history, will be reconstructed, discussed and performed for the first time in nearly sixty years when the Seminary hosts a major international conference this November. "Voice of Ashkenaz--The Music and Culture of German and Central European Jewry: Remembrance and Renewal" is an effort to restore this music's place in Jewish consciousness and to begin to understand its value. Co-sponsored by JTS, the Leo Baeck Institute and Hebrew Union College--Jewish Institute of Religion, the conference will culminate in a concert at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall.

"Voice of Ashkenaz" will take place at JTS and other locations around New York City from November 7 to November 11. This congress, the first ever on this subject, will coincide with the fifty-ninth anniversary of Kristallnacht. Directed by JTS assistant professor of Jewish music Neil Levin, it will feature academic papers and lectures by some of the finest scholars from throughout America, Europe and Israel; musical demonstrations; and three major concerts. The conference, open to the general public, is expected to draw participants from as far away as Australia and South Africa.

Shabbat services reconstructing pre-war German synagogue ambiance and music with attention to both historical and aesthetic accuracy will open the conference. Friday night services will follow the Berlin tradition with the music of Louis Lewandowski. Shabbat morning services will be devoted to the Munich and Frankfurt traditions. Torah and haftarah readings will be chanted according to the German cantillation.

A special dinner at the Seminary will honor Estrongo Nachama, the chief cantor of Berlin from just after the war until his recent retirement. Nachama, who will be present along with a group of the last remaining pre-war German cantors, restored some of the Berlin cantorial tradition in the late 1940's and managed to keep it at least active during the very difficult post-war period.

At Lincoln Center, major cantorial works dormant for nearly six decades will be performed by prominent Conservative and Reform cantors such as Alberto Mizrahi, David Lefkowitz, Ira Bigeleisen, Israel Goldstein and Ida Rae Cahana along with the Seminary's H. L. Miller Cantorial School Chorus, HUC's chorus and the choirs of three major Conservative synagogues.
Entitled "Soul of Ashkenaz" the performance will open with the once famous Deutsche Kedusha, a grand Lewandowski composition synthesizing German language and music with Hebrew liturgy.

The program at Merkin Concert Hall will explore the non-religious music of this period. Among the performances are "From Berlin to Jerusalem," featuring music by German-Jewish emigre composers in Palestine in the 1930's; three world premieres, two commissioned especially for this occasion; and recently discovered Jewish music by Kurt Weill.

Neil Levin is assistant professor of Jewish music.

1997 The Jewish Theological Seminary of America
The Jewish Theological Seminary's web site offers a wide variety of information regarding JTS and Judaism, both Conservative and general.

The Lehrhaus (house of learning) is named after a remarkable educational program begun in Frankfurt by the great German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig in 1920.
Rosenzweig brought together prominent Jewish philosophers of his day with leading Jewish figures in the academic and cultural worlds--including Martin Buber, Erich Fromm and Abraham Joshua Heschel--to promote mutual enrichment and a new kind of Jewish learning. The JTS Lehrhaus, held twice a year since 1986, meets once a week for six weeks and takes place at the Seminary's scenic and peaceful Manhattan campus, one block north of Columbia University's Teachers College.

1997 / 5758 - Freie Jüdische Umschau

content: 1996 - 1999